Distributist Perspectives

Distributist Perspectives

by J. Forrest Sharpe, Hilaire Belloc, George Maxwell

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The writings collected here are from a school of English thinkers in the 1930s and 1940s who were concerned about the desperate state of modern society. The writers include G. K. Chesterton, H. J. Massingham, Eric Gill, Hilaire Belloc, Herbert Shove, and Arthur Penty. They study various parts of the problem of capitalist society; the origins, benefits, and…  See more details below


The writings collected here are from a school of English thinkers in the 1930s and 1940s who were concerned about the desperate state of modern society. The writers include G. K. Chesterton, H. J. Massingham, Eric Gill, Hilaire Belloc, Herbert Shove, and Arthur Penty. They study various parts of the problem of capitalist society; the origins, benefits, and demerits of industrialism; the importance of art to society and its sufferance under capitalism; the size of commercial organization and its relevance to efficiency; the nature and purpose of work as a concept; and the crucial nature of understanding the present through real knowledge of the past.

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Distributist Perspectives Volume I

Essays on the Economics of Justice and Charity

By Herbert W. Shove, George Maxwell, Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, Arthur J. Penty, H.J. Massingham, Eric Gill, Harold Robbins

IHS Press

Copyright © 2004 IHS Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-9718286-7-4


On Knowing the Past by Hilaire Belloc

An apprehension of the past demands two kinds of information.

First, the mind must grasp the nature of historic change and must be made acquainted with the conditions of human thought in each successive period, as also with the general aspect of its revolution and progression.

Secondly, the actions of men, the times, that is the dates and hours of such action, must be strictly and accurately acquired.

Neither of these two foundations, upon which repose both the teaching and the learning of history, is more important than the other. Each is essential. But a neglect of the due emphasis which one or the other demands, though both be present, warps the judgement of the scholar and forbids him to apply this science to its end, which is the establishment of truth.

History may be called the test of true philosophy, or it may be called in a very modern and not very dignified metaphor, the object-lesson of political science; or it may be called the great story whose interest is upon another plane from all other stories because its irony, its tragedy and its moral are real, were acted by real men, and were the manifestation of God.

But whatever brief and epigrammatic summary we make to explain the value of history to men, that formula still remains an imperative formula for them all, and I repeat it: the end of history is the establishment of truth.

A man may be ever so accurately informed as to the dates, the hours, the weather, the gestures, the type of speech, the very words, the soil, the colour, that between them all would seem to build up a particular event. But if he is not seized of the mind which lay behind all that was human in the business, then no synthesis of his detailed knowledge is possible. He cannot give to the various actions which he knows their due sequence and proportion; he knows not what to omit, nor what to enlarge upon, among so many, or rather a potentially infinite number of facts, and his picture will not be (as some would put it) distorted: it will be false. He will not be able to use history for its end, which is the establishment of truth. All that he establishes by his action, all that he confirms and makes stronger, is untruth. And so far as truth is concerned, it would be far better that a man should be possessed of no history than that he should be possessed of history ill stated as to the factor of human motive.

A living man has to aid his judgement and to guide him in the establishment of truth, contemporary experience. Other men are his daily companions. The consequence and the living principles of their acts and of his own are fully within his grasp.

If a man is rightly informed of all the past motive and determining mind from which the present has sprung, his information will illumine and expand and confirm his use of that present experience. If he know nothing of the past his personal observation and the testimony of his own senses are, so far as they go, an unshakable foundation. But if he brings in aid of contemporary experience an appreciation of the past which is false because it gives to the past a mind which was not its own, then he will not only be wrong upon that past but he will tend to be wrong also in his conclusions upon the present. He will for ever read into the plain facts before him origins and predetermining forces which do not explain them and which are not connected with them in the way he imagines. And he will easily come to regard his own society, which as a wholly uninstructed man he might fairly though insufficiently have grasped, through a veil of illusion and of false philosophy, until at last he cannot even see the things before his eyes. In a word, it is better to have no history at all than to have history which misconceives the general direction and the large lines of thought in the immediate and the remote past.

This being evidently the case one is tempted to say that a just estimate of the revolution and the progression of human motive in the past is everything to history, and that an accurate scholarship in the details of the chronicle, in dates especially, is of wholly inferior importance. Such a statement would be quite false. Scholarship inhistory, that is an acquaintance with the largest possible number of facts, and an accurate retention of them in the memory, is as essential to this study as of that other background of motive which has just been examined.

The thing is self-evident if we put an extreme case. For if a man were wholly ignorant of the facts of history and of their sequence, he could not possibly know what might lie behind the actions of the past, for we only obtain communion with that which is within and that which is foundational in human action by an observation of its external effect.

A man's history, for instance, is sound and on the right lines if he have but a vague and general sentiment of the old Pagan civilization of the Mediterranean, so long as that sentiment corresponds to the very large outline and is in sympathy with the main spirit of the affair. But he cannot possess so much as an impression of the truth if he has not heard the names of certain of the great actors, if he is wholly unacquainted with the conception of a City State, and if the names of Rome, of Athens, of Antioch, of Alexandria, and of Jerusalem have never been mentioned to him.

Nor will a knowledge of facts, however slight, be valuable; contrariwise it will be detrimental and of negative value to his judgement if accuracy in his knowledge be lacking. If he were invariably inaccurate, thinking that red which was blue, inverting the order of any two events and putting without fail in the summer what happened in winter, or in the Germanies what took place in Gaul, his facts would never correspond with the human motive of them, and his errors upon externals would at once close his avenues of access towards internal motive and suggest other and non-existent motive in its place.

It is, of course, a childish error to imagine that the knowledge of a time grows out of a mere accumulation of observation. External things do not produce ideas, they only reveal them. And to imagine that mere scholarship is sufficient to history is to put oneself on a level with those who, in the sphere of politics, for instance, ignore the necessity of political theory and talk muddily of the "working" of institutions – as though it were possible to judge whether an institution were working ill or not when one had no ideal that institutions might be designed to attain. But though scholarship is not the source of judgement in history, it is the invariable and the necessary accompaniment of it. Facts, which (to repeat) do not produce ideas but only reveal or suggest them, do nonetheless reveal and suggest them, and form the only instrument of such suggestion and revelation.

Scholarship, accurate and widespread, has this farther function: that it lends stuff to general apprehension of the past, which, however just, is the firmer, the larger and the more intense as the range of knowledge and its fixity increase. And scholarship has one more function, which is that it connects, and it connects with more and more precision in proportion as it is more and more detailed, the tendency of the mind to develop a general and perhaps justly apprehended idea into imaginary regions: for the mind is creative; it will still make and spin, and if you do not feed it with material it will spin dreams out of emptiness.

Thus a man will have a just appreciation of the thirteenth century in England; he will perhaps admire or will perhaps be repelled by its whole spirit according to his temperament or his acquired philosophy; but in either case, though his general impression was just, he will tend to add to it excrescences of judgement which, as the process continued, would at last destroy the true image were not scholarship there to come in perpetually and check him in his conclusions. He admires it, he will tend to make it more national than it was, to forget its cruelties because what is good in our own age is not accompanied by cruelty. He will tend to lend it a science it did not possess because physical science is in our own time an accompaniment of greatness. But if he reads and reads continually, these vagaries will not oppress or warp his vision. More and more body will be added to that spirit, which he does justly but only vaguely know. And he will at last have with the English thirteenth century something of that acquaintance which one has with a human face and voice: these also are external things, and these also are the product of a soul.

Indeed – though metaphors are dangerous in such a matter – a metaphor may with reservation be used to describe the effect of the chronicle, of research and of accurate scholarship in the science of history. A man ill provided with such material is like one who sees a friend at a distance; a man well provided with it is like a man who sees a friend close at hand. Both are certain of the identity of the person seen, both are well founded in that certitude; but there are errors possible to the first which are not possible to the second, and close and intimate acquaintance lends to every part of judgement a surety which distant and general acquaintance wholly lacks. The one can say something true and say it briefly: there is no more to say. The other can fill in and fill in the picture, until though perhaps never complete, it is asymptotic to completion.

To increase one's knowledge by research, to train oneself to an accurate memory of it, does not mean that one's view of the past is continually changing. Only a fool can think, for instance, that some document somewhere will be discovered to show that the mass of the people of London had for James II an ardent veneration, or that the national defence organised by the Committee of Public Safety during the French Revolution was due to the unpopular tyranny of a secret society. But research in either of these cases, and a minute and increasing acquaintance with detail, does show one London largely apathetic in the first place, and does show one large sections of rebellious feeling in the armies of the Terror. It permits one to appreciate what energy and what initiative were needed for the overthrow of the Stuarts, and to see from how small a body of wealthy and determined men that policy proceeded. It permits one to understand how the battles of '93 could never have been fought upon the basis of popular enthusiasm alone; it permits one to assert without exaggeration that the autocratic power of the Committee of Public Safety and the secrecy of its action was a necessary condition of the National defence during the French Revolution.

One might conclude by saying what might seem too good to be true: namely, that minute and accurate information upon details (the characteristic of our time in the science of history) must of its own nature so corroborate just and general judgements of the past, that through it, when the modern phase of wilful distortion is over, mere blind scholarship will restore tradition.

I say it sounds too good to be true. But three or four examples of such action are already before us. Consider the Gospel of St. John, for instance, or what is called "the Higher Criticism" of the old Hebrew literature, and ask yourselves whether modern scholarship has not tended to restore the long and sane judgement of men, which, when that scholarship was still imperfect, seemed to imperil.


The Truth About Work by George Maxwell

Animals, machines and natural forces work. But this essay is concerned with the work of men – human beings. Although men possess with the animal and inanimate creation properties in common, and the activities of both resemble each other in so many ways that these resemblances may give rise to an idea that in man there are two natures, a higher and a lower; although these common properties can in man be so developed as to hide his distinguishing character, there is only one nature in man. It is necessary to understand what this nature is in order to distinguish man's work from the work of animate or inanimate creation.

Man's nature is that of a rational animal, spiritual and material. These two elements are organically united to form an integral whole. Each element in its own sphere is equally important. Man's spiritual nature, manifested by intellect (the power of reasoning) and free will (the power of choice,) raises him above other created things to the dignity of a person, i.e., an intelligent, free and responsible being. The intellect by virtue of advertence to the dictates of reason is able to make a judgement as to the rightness of any action, i.e., its conformity with his rational nature; and the will by virtue of its freedom is able to choose to accept or reject this judgement. This is what is meant by responsibility. Praise or blame, encouragement or shame follow from the use of responsibility. And the morality of an action means its accord with right reason.

So much for man's nature considered as an individual person. But man is not merely an individual; he is also a social being. Without society his nature would be stultified and lack the means necessary for his development and perfection. Society may be defined as the living together of intelligent beings who co-operate to establish those material and spiritual conditions which will best promote the development and perfection of all who belong to society. This purpose of society is called the Common Good, as distinct from the Public or the Private Good. In the concrete the Common Good is the sum total of advantages which by reason of co-operation concerns all who belong to society. Co-operation means the willing activity of two or more intelligent beings for a common end or purpose. Thus man's activities are not only personal but social.

Considered from the natural aspect alone, the nature of man is different in kind as well as degree from other created beings. Furthermore, the Author of Nature has by Grace raised man to a still higher plane than the natural – the supernatural plane. Raised from a natural to a supernatural destiny, man is offered grace, which does not supersede or destroy nature but fulfils and perfects it. It is offered to all who accept the means. Thus the nature of man embraces in one complete unity the life of grace, the life of the spirit and the life of the body, i.e., material life. These three, united in that order of primacy and acting accordingly, are the subject of man's life and work. The order is hierarchic and the functions of each knit inseparably with the others. There is a correspondence between what happens on the higher plans with what happens on the lower, and vice versa.

Objectively, i.e., in reality, man's purpose or reason for existence is the Glory of God. Subjectively or incidentally it is man's own happiness. From the moment of his birth until his death man is ever striving after happiness. By Divine Providence the objective and subjective are organically united. Do God's will and happiness follows. That order of action is vital and must be preserved. Should man give precedence to his own happiness before God's will, the unity is destroyed and disorder and disease follow in place of happiness. With the exception of man, everything in nature obeys God's law. Man alone is free to disobey, and we know from the doctrine of the Fall somewhat of the chaos and suffering which has resulted from man's rebelling against the law. It is not to my purpose to deal with the doctrine of the Fall except to state that this rebellion did not change the nature of man; that the promised Redeemer did come, bywhose merits men might restore the order which was lost; and that while it would be an imbecility or worse to refuse to co-operate in God's Redemption, it is no less so to be complacent about the evils surrounding us today, on the assumption that they are the results of Adam's sin, when in great measure they are the result of our own.

With this outline of the nature and purpose of man, the nature and purpose of human work can be examined. Work is that activity applied to other natures in order that man may perfect himself firstly as a person – a free responsible being and under God a creator, and secondly as a member of society. The order is important, but the two are not separate. They are organically united. The one flows from the other, as do the two great commandments of the law, love God and love your neighbour. The spiritual constituent of man, the intellect and the will, being free of matter and independent, is naturally immortal and has the primacy over man's material constituent which is naturally mortal and is the instrument of the soul. Thus before all else, human work must be personal. Work must reflect in itself man's love of Reality, Truth, Goodness, etc., and for its perfection, Charity, the love of God. The love of his neighbour is reflected by his work being good in itself and of service to society, which is bound by the same law as himself. "Work is not a punishment, a curse, or enslavement, but the cooperation of the labourer with his Creator and Redeemer," says Canon Cardijn. It is a human activity and must conform to the laws governing human acts – acts which flow from a free will with the knowledge and understanding of the end and purpose, and as such have an eternal value. Man is the only person with a material constituent in his being, and therefore for the full development of his personality – his humanity – he needs material things to which he can apply the full combined powers of mind and body. This is so because his actions as applied to material things are his own actions only when he is free to treat those things as he wishes. Because of his animal nature he needs and therefore has a right to consumptive property. Because of his nature as a human person he has a right to productive property. Human labour and private property are the foundations without which no sound society can exist economically or otherwise. The form of private property may change, but its essence must always be stable – the effective ownership and control of the means to exercise one's responsibilities. On the extent to which these two foundations are buttressed, so will thewellbeing of man and society flourish. On the extent to which they are neglected, according to that measure will man and society decay.


Excerpted from Distributist Perspectives Volume I by Herbert W. Shove, George Maxwell, Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, Arthur J. Penty, H.J. Massingham, Eric Gill, Harold Robbins. Copyright © 2004 IHS Press. Excerpted by permission of IHS Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

John Sharpe received his degree in English from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, with emphases in political thought and history. He has authored prefaces to new editions of works by Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton. D.L. O'Huallachain studied European history and philosophy at Leicester and Winchester in England. He has authored introductions for new editions of works by Hilaire Belloc, Arthur Penty, and G. K. Chesterton.

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